Keith Thomas

Keith Thomas’s In Pursuit of Civility, about manners in early modern England, is out now.

On​ 1 November 1755 an earthquake in Lisbon, followed by fire and floods, killed between thirty and sixty thousand people. The disaster, all the preachers said, was God’s punishment for sinfulness. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, saw it as divine vengeance for the cruelties of the Portuguese Inquisition. He had identified a minor earthquake near a racecourse in Yorkshire as...

Noisomeness: Smells of Hell

Keith Thomas, 16 July 2020

Ionceasked the great historian Richard Southern whether he would like to have met any of the medieval saints and churchmen about whom he wrote so eloquently. He gave a cautious reply: ‘I think they probably had very bad breath.’ He may have been right about that, but it would be wrong to infer that this was something which didn’t bother them. The men and women of the...

The history​ of domestic life is not a new subject. Like so much else, it was pioneered in the Victorian age, when the cult of domesticity reached its peak. In 1852 the composer Henry Bishop relaunched ‘Home, Sweet Home’, the parlour ballad which the opera singer Jenny Lind made wildly popular. Ten years later the great antiquary Thomas Wright published his History of Domestic...

Diary: Two Years a Squaddie

Keith Thomas, 5 February 2015

I sometimes have​ bad dreams about being back in the army. It’s not that the experience of National Service was entirely unpleasant; indeed some of it was highly enjoyable. But even at the best of times there was a sense of living in an open prison. In my case, this oppressive sense of unfreedom lay in the knowledge that it would be many long months before I would see my family...

Verie Sillie People: Bacon’s Lives

Keith Thomas, 7 February 2013

Philosopher, lawyer, essayist, historian, theorist of experimental inquiry and prophet of organised scientific research, Francis Bacon combined soaring intellectual ambition with a relentless quest for worldly advancement. The scholar who sought to reclassify the whole of human knowledge and lay the foundations for the systematic conquest of nature was also the careerist who desperately...

Universities under Attack

Keith Thomas, 15 December 2011

We are all deeply anxious about the future of British universities. Our list of concerns is a long one. It includes the discontinuance of free university education; the withdrawal of direct public funding for the teaching of the humanities and the social sciences; the subjection of universities to an intrusive regime of government regulation and inquisitorial audit; the crude attempt to measure and increase scholarly ‘output’.

Killing Stones: Holy Places

Keith Thomas, 19 May 2011

Most of the world’s religions have their holy places, thought to offer closer access to the divinity. Sometimes they are associated with key events in the history of the religion concerned. They may, like Bethlehem and Mecca, have been the founder’s birthplace, or, like Jerusalem and Lourdes, the scene of apparitions, martyrdoms or miracles. Mount Ararat in Turkey is sacred to the...

Diary: Working Methods

Keith Thomas, 10 June 2010

Newton used to turn down the corners of the pages of his books so that they pointed to the exact passage he wished to recall. J.H. Plumb once showed me a set of Swift’s works given him by G.M. Trevelyan; it had originally belonged to Macaulay, who had drawn a line all the way down the margin of every page as he read it, no doubt committing the whole to memory. The pencilled dots in the margin of many books in the Codrington Library at All Souls are certain evidence that A.L. Rowse was there before you. My old tutor, Christopher Hill, used to pencil on the back endpaper of his books a list of the pages and topics which had caught his attention. He rubbed out his notes if he sold the book, but not always very thoroughly, so one can usually recognise a volume which belonged to him.

On Guy Fawkes Day 1665, Samuel Pepys paid a visit to John Evelyn, his fellow diarist, administrative colleague and lifelong friend. Evelyn had an astonishing range of interests, from numismatics to town planning. He also possessed the leisure in which to pursue them, thanks to a family fortune founded on manufacturing gunpowder for Elizabeth I. He had spent most of the Civil War period and...

Hugh Dalton to the rescue

Keith Thomas, 13 November 1997

The stately home is England’s most characteristic contribution to international tourism. Many countries have old houses which are open to the public. But neither the châteaux of the Loire nor the Palladian villas of the Brenta nor the antebellum homes of Natchez can offer the spectacle of an ancient house, set in its own gardens and park, surrounded by its agricultural estates, crammed with furniture, books and paintings from the past and, best of all, still occupied by a descendant of the family which built it. It is this irresistible combination of architectural distinction, aesthetic display and genealogical continuity which has made the English country house so crucial a national icon.


Keith Thomas, 20 April 1995

Raphael Samuel and I were undergraduates together at Balliol in the early Fifties. Bibliographically omnivorous, buried under piles of notes and unfinished essays, inkstained and dishevelled, he exuded intellectual intensity and passionate left-wing commitment. I remember his appearing at breakfast one morning, tearful and wearing a black tie. Asked what the matter was, he burst out, weeping: ‘Uncle Joe is dead!’ In his new book he tells us that he was brought up in a ‘bookish, religiously Communist family’ and that there was a bust of J.V. Stalin on the kitchen mantelpiece. He was certainly bookish, for I remember browsing on the shelves of his college room and picking up a copy of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, a set book for our History prelims, only to find in it the daunting inscription: ‘To Raphael on his eighth birthday.’

Gentle Boyle

Keith Thomas, 22 September 1994

Most of what we know and think is secondhand. ‘Almost all the opinions we have are taken by authority and upon credit,’ wrote Montaigne, in an age when the sum of human knowledge was a great deal less than it has since become. Nowadays, we cannot begin to verify the vast structure of accepted scientific doctrine for ourselves, but have to take it on trust. Even researchers conducting laboratory experiments at the scientific coalface are heavily reliant on the say-so of others. If they are to achieve anything, they must assume that the materials with which they work are what they purport to be, that their instruments are reliable, that the tables to which they refer have been accurately printed, that accounts of previous experiments are not fabrications and that their laboratory technicians are not practical jokers. Of course, it is possible to test all these things. But not only would such checks consume an inordinate amount of time: they would be impossible to conduct without further dependence on the testimony of others. As C.A.J. Coady recently showed in his Testimony: A Philosophical Study, epistemic individualism, the idea that we should doubt everything except what we have established single-handedly for ourselves, is an absurdity.

Civility​ as a concept, or an ideal, didn’t take hold in England until the 16th century – when the national mood, insofar as we can speak of one, was a mixture of bravado and...

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Keith Thomas prefaces this book with a quotation from the greatest of English medievalists, F.W. Maitland: ‘A century hence . . . by slow degrees the thoughts of our forefathers,...

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Death in Cumbria

Alan Macfarlane, 19 May 1983

England in the 19th century presented the enquiring foreigner with a series of strange paradoxes. It was the most urbanised country in the world, yet the one where the yearning for the...

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